The writer JP Cuenca feels like a “Kafka in the tropics”. It is not the first time because a few years ago this Brazilian writer was involved in a surreal situation when he discovered that he had been dead for a long time from the authorities. He turned that bureaucratic mess into material for his novel I found out i was dead (Planet, 2017). Now, the matter transcends his person and what is at stake has more depth. Cuenca is the accused in a broad judicial offensive for a tweet which he published in June. More than a hundred pastors of one of the most powerful evangelical churches in Brazil claim compensation in court for this sentence: “Brazilians will only be free when they hang the last Bolsonaro with the intestines of the last pastor of the Universal Church.”
For João Paulo Cuenca (Rio de Janeiro, 1978), what is at stake is the right to freedom of expression, and the right to offense, in a country polarized to the extreme under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, whom he considers “A fascist and a genocide.” Cuenca recounted the details of the case this week in a café in São Paulo. He emphasizes, from the outset, that the tweet is “a paraphrase of a metaphor of almost 300 years”, written by the French Jean Meslier, about the elites and the Catholic Church. Although he explained this that same night in a Twitter thread, he suffered attacks and threats.
In Brazil these are ripe times for visceral controversies and hurtful arguments. Within two days, the novelist had lost the opinion column he published in the local branch of Deutsche Welle. The German public channel fired him, considering the content of the tweet contrary to its values. DW too repudiated in your note “Any hate speech and incitement to violence.” The novelist is unnerved by this reference, which he considers defamatory because, he insists, the phrase should not be understood literally. For that he put some quotes and added the clarification.
Deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of the president, intervened in the controversy via Twitter, announced a lawsuit and, from there, the cyberpandemonium broke out. The author says that his mailboxes on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were filled with insults and death threats.
Several weeks passed and, when the storm subsided in networks, the surprise jumped. Cuenca discovered that pastors of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God – led by a valued ally of Bolsonaro – have filed moral damages lawsuits against him in scattered and remote cities. First there were ten, then dozens and this Thursday there were 111 complaints. The most peculiar thing is that they are individual lawsuits before courts of municipalities distributed throughout almost all of Brazil, small cities, far from any airport. Each pastor claims between 10,000 and 20,000 reais in compensation. Together, they demand between 150,000 and 300,000 euros.
The trigger for the tweet, explains the writer, was news he read that day. He reported that the Brazilian government was going to subsidize channels and stations of evangelical churches, although they have debts with the state. Pentecostal evangelicals were a crucial electoral support for Bolsonaro. No other group propelled him so unanimously to power.
“The idea (of the plaintiffs) is to create an indefensible case, a case that drives me crazy because I don’t have the economic or logistical capacity to defend myself in all these small cities,” explains the novelist in Spanish that he learned from his father, an Argentine immigrant. . This flood of lawsuits scattered across a continental territory is a huge challenge for anyone.
The lawyer Fernando Hideo Lacerda, who has assumed the defense for free, points out: “The lawsuits are not identical, but I see a pattern, that makes us think that it is an action orchestrated at the national level,” he explains. Although each one is signed by a specific pastor of the Universal Church, the language suggests that they were written by lawyers. With similar texts, they request compensation for similar amounts.
In some cases, the lawsuits are practically identical to those signed by Pastors Lucio Furtado, in Unaí, and Rogerio da Silva, in Ariquemes. The first city is in the state of Minas Gerais, the second in Rondonia. More than 2,500 kilometers separate them. The defendant and his defense are powerfully struck by the fact that not a single one was presented in the largest city in Brazil, São Paulo, where he has lived since leaving behind a Rio de Janeiro whose cultural scene fell into decline after the Olympic Games. The lawyer adds a detail to strengthen his thesis. The shepherds have resorted to a path that exempts them from paying the costs if they lose.
Asked about the demands of their pastors, the Universal Church emphasizes that they are autonomous to decide whether to go to court. It adds that “freedom of expression is not an absolute right. In Brazil it is not allowed for a “satire” or “metaphor” to promote despicable ideas such as Nazism, racism or prejudice of any kind, including religious prejudice ”. By chance, Cuenca shares an editorial in Brazil with Edir Macedo, the leader of the Universal Church, who has built a multinational religious empire with 10,000 temples in dozens of countries that number millions of faithful. Both publish in Planeta.
The writer believes that with that tweet, which he deleted on the advice of his lawyers, he took the initiative for a moment in a political landscape marked by a constantly defensive opposition. Since he has governed, Bolsonaro and his allies decide the political agenda and the public debate. “The mechanics are as follows: they do or say things, we react, we propagandize them… With a paraphrase of a nearly 300-year-old metaphor, for an instant I reversed the game. I made them react because they felt offended. They believe they have a monopoly on the offense ”. The writer is concerned about how the threats and outbursts made by Bolsonaro and his associates against the Workers’ Party, homosexuals, transsexuals, those who profess religions of African origin have become normalized …
Cuenca, the author of four books translated into eight languages, is not the first Brazilian to be involved in such a case. It was in 2007. The protagonist, a reporter from Folha de S. Paulo who wrote about the business of the Universal Church. A hundred pastors took her to court. He won all the lawsuits after the newspaper sent lawyers and journalists to each town. A fortune was spent.
The novelist assures that beyond defending himself with his limited means, he intends to fight back in court. “If this is normalized by the judicial system and Brazilian society, tomorrow it may be up to anyone else who offends them,” he warns. His strategy is to try to show that pastors do not seek justice. “If I can prove that they are attacking me by using the judicial system to harass me in a coordinated action, I win, I get compensation and they lose, it will become a paradigmatic case.” He is aware of the difficulty. “The climate is not that of 2007. It is another Brazil. Now we are ruled by a fascist, we are walking towards an evangelical theocracy of the extreme right ”.
The novelist wants to get the most out of the experience. As he did with his previous novel after discovering his official death, he is incorporating material from this new odyssey into his next work. He started writing it during a stay in Madrid and it already has a title: Nothing is older than the recent past.